City's underspend on schools put at 250m pounds: Money lavished on international facilities, report says

BIRMINGHAM has underspent on education by nearly pounds 250m in the past five years while lavishing money on its international facilities, says a report from an independent commission published yesterday.

John Patten, Secretary of State for Education, last year called the city 'the worst education authority in Britain' and said it had spent pounds 55m less on education in the year than the Government said it should.

The 13-member commission set up by the council was chaired by Ted Wragg, director of the School of Education at Exeter University. It included councillors, teachers, parents and an industrialist. It says the precise calculation of the shortfall in spending on education is complicated but goes on: 'Whichever way one looks at it, enormous amounts of money that were thought to be spendable on education have never found their way into the system. Instead, the city has spend substantial sums on international and other facilities.'

It adds: 'Birmingham can rightly be proud of its international facilities. But the state of its school buildings by contrast brings shame to the city.'

The report, called Aiming High, recognises that the Government and city councils must share the blame for 'the appalling state of some school buildings' but recommends that pounds 300m should be spent on education, pounds 200m on buildings, in the next five years 'as compensation for the last five'. It says the problem spans a period of 40 years.

The commission, which heard evidence from teachers, employers, parents, governors and politicians, says the investigation of standards in the city's schools was not part of its brief. But it notes the view of a former government inspector, the District Inspector for the Midlands, that standards could have been better. 'In some schools in Birmingham pass rates in GCSE were lower than had previously been the case in O-level, the opposite of the national trend.'

Professor Wragg proposes an ambitious alternative to the Government policy of raising standards through national testing and league tables. His report goes further than Mr Patten in demanding testing for all four- and five-year-olds starting school in order to help plan suitable lessons so a school's contribution to a child's progess can be measured.

Every school, according to the report, should set its own targets for pupils of different ages and the council should monitor these to ensure that they are neither too high nor too low. In reading, for instance, schools may suggest what proportion of seven-year-olds should have basic reading skills and what proportion should be fluent readers. 'We should like to see every child able to read by the age of seven though we recognise that this is an idealistic aspiration,' the report says. Schools could set an optimum estimate of what they hope to achieve in addition to maximum and minimum estimates.

Theresa Stewart, leader of the Labour council, said: 'I pledge our commitment to put education as a top priority. We are determined that we shall devote more resources to schools.'

Professor Wragg said no city had so far tried to set individual school targets. 'I can think of no city better placed to succeed than Birmingham. We were tremendously impressed with the calibre of heads and teachers who gave evidence. If Birmingham can do this it will be copied elsewhere.'

He disputed Mr Patten's contention that the city was the worst authority in Britain. He hoped the secretary of state, who chose not to give evidence to the commission, would read the report. 'We know he can criticise. I hope he can also encourage.'

The commission will meet again in two years to measure progress.

(Photograph omitted)